Strategy for Tackling Violence Against Women and Girls

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 7:13 pm on 21st July 2021.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Jess Phillips Jess Phillips Shadow Minister (Home Office) 7:13 pm, 21st July 2021

The first responsibility of any Government is the safety and security of their citizens. Today, rape prosecutions are at a record low, domestic abuse in this country is soaring and charging is falling. Sexual abuse in school is being normalised, according to the recent Ofsted inspections. Ending violence against women and girls is a cross-party issue. On both sides of this House, there is a profound concern and desire for an ambitious strategy that will deliver. The strategy today is not ambitious enough.

There are things to welcome. A policing lead on violence against women is certainly one of them, but we already have one for domestic abuse, one for rape and sex offences, another for historical sexual abuse and one for child sex abuse, so why will this one succeed where others have struggled without the resources to tackle the issue properly?

It is good to see that calls for a public awareness campaign aimed at men to stop the perpetration of misogyny have been answered. A rape helpline looks good when it is written on a piece of paper, but can the Minister answer this: will it be for recent sex offences, or will it be open to all historical cases too? Is there a guarantee that the helpline will have a local specialist agency to refer to that can pick up the case straight away? Currently, in a number of rape cases I am handling, victims are on very long waiting lists—some waiting for 18 months for any sort of a service. Can people just keep calling the line until a service is available? It is simply not enough.

There is so much missing in what the strategy sets out today, and time will only allow me to highlight a few things. I welcome the offer to look at the possibility of reviewing some non-disclosure agreements at universities and the preventive duty on employers is something we have campaigned for, along with unions and women across the country, for years. Why, then, is there nothing about non-disclosure agreements in workplaces, when women are still being abused and silenced completely legally in our country?

Where in the strategy is there anything to help adult women suffering sexual exploitation? During the pandemic, I sat with a 23-year-old woman as she bled on the floor in front of me, following a battering by her controlling gang, miscarrying the child she had conceived of rape. She was scared of the police and needed urgent, yet unavailable, housing. Why in this strategy have we left the gap that means there is no national strategy for sexual exploitation of adult women? Where is this woman in this strategy? Why is there no national strategy for or inclusion in this strategy of adult victims of sexual exploitation? Their only slight mention is that the Government are going to ask porn sites to voluntarily do better on exploitation. I am sure the porn sites are all going to do the right thing!

Where is the much-needed public sexual harassment law? The Government have said that they think offences exist already. Well, tell that to the two thirds of young women who tell us they are suffering this abuse every day. We need root-and-branch reforms not only across the criminal justice sector, but in health, in housing, in social security and online. We need to make sure that women and girls, wherever they are and whatever they are doing, are safe.

Instead, we have some transport champions, who already seem to have pretty busy jobs—especially if you are a west midlands MP, you would think they did—as well as an app gathering data that local authorities will not be resourced for responding to or compelled to respond to, and absolutely no long-term funding for any of the invaluable specialist services that the Government are relying on to deliver most of this strategy. The VAWG strategy expects services to be able to deliver without any serious funding to deliver it. What is clear is that, on every single step of their journey, women and girls are being failed, and today it feels as if the Government do not have enough of a plan to manage that.

The Labour party has worked up a Green Paper for ending violence against women and girls. We have set out, among many other things, toughening sentences for rape, stalking and domestic murder, and reviewing sentences for all domestic abuse. We have set about introducing a survivor support package to improve victims’ experiences in the courts, including fast-tracking rape and sexual violence cases, end-to-end legal help for victims and better training for professionals to give people the help they need. We also suggest, as quickly as possible, the creation of new offences for street harassment.

I once again offer to work with the Minister to help make this strategy into something that women and girls in our country need. I hope she takes me up on it.